Le Mouton Noir de ma Famille: In Which I Discuss the Living Bilingually in a Monolingual Household

I would like to start off this post by clearing up the answers to the four most frequently asked questions that people ask when I tell them that I am proficient in French.

1. How long have you been learning it?

Since my first year of high school. Since I picked it up quickly and wished to get ahead, two of my friends and I took an accelerated second-year course over the following summer. I continued to show an aptitude for it that school year when I was the only member of the class who was comfortable enough to talk with an exchange student from France in his native tongue and “No fair, they have Lauren in their group” became a common complaint on group presentation days. I spent the next two years in the significantly more in-depth IB French class. In the end of my junior year and beginning of senior year I proved that I really meant business by writing a college-level research paper in French (see previous post for details).

2. Have you ever been to France?

Not yet, but that’s coming soon. I hope. Now that I’m in college and I have friends who live there it’s more likely to happen.

3. Do you know Spanish too?

Seriously? Are two languages not good enough for you? How many do you speak?

4. Do you want to be a French teacher when you grow up?

That’s not currently part of the plan but I haven’t completely ruled it out (mostly because I’m too young to rule stuff out). If I don’t change my mind (haha) I plan to work in human rights. A lot of people who do that speak French.

5. Are you actually French?

No, I am not of French heritage. My ancestors were primarily German and Italian and I do not feel particularly strong ties to either. In fact, no one in my immediate family speaks anything except English.

That last question is what I planned for the focus of this post. Because my dad is an AP Biology and anatomy teacher and my mom is an Occupational Therapist many adults in my life expected me to gravitate toward the natural sciences for as long as I can remember.  Since this skill of mine was discovered four years ago, I could summarize my parents’ thoughts on it with “Where did that come from?”  My dad notoriously failed out of his second-year high school French class and my mom remembers very little of her four years of Latin. When my younger sister tried to follow in my footsteps, she discovered that she is more like my parents than me.

As my second language became part of my personal lifestyle, some interesting patterns have occurred. One that can be expected is the frequent asking for translations when anything in French appears on TV. This became a problem during the opening ceremony for the most recent summer Olympics after I explained that, yes, they announce everything in French first, then in English, then in the language of the host country. This explanation did not convince my mother and sister that in the amount of time it took them to shout, “What did he say, Lauren?” they would miss the same announcement in English.  Similarly, one day when I decided to watch the Québecois film, C.R.A.Z.Y alone and without subtitles because none of my family members were interested, my maternal unit frequently popped by to watch fragments of it and ask me questions like, “Who’s the cute actor?” (Our dashing friend Marc-André Grondin), “Is that real French?”(In response to a character saying “Excusez moi”), “Can you explain that to me?” (On a plot point that is a result of an earlier one), and several, “What did he just say?”s. If she had sat down with me from the beginning and asked me to turn on the subtitles all of this could have been avoided and she probably would have enjoyed it because I certainly did.

When my family members know that asking for a translation is unnecessary, they often feel compelled to verbalize the fact that they don’t understand. If I had a dollar for every time a member of my household tried to read over my shoulder and said something along the lines of “I have no idea what that says” while I worked on my Extended Essay on Les Misérables I would have a lot of dollars. Similar verbalizations have occurred on the rare but still notable occasions when they inadvertently sang along to the French show tunes from the Les Misérables concept album, La Révolution Française Opéra-Rock, and 1789: Les Amants de la Bastille.

When I have tried to teach other people how to say things in French I am often surprised at how difficult an untrained mouth can find it to pronounce words when the untrained ear attached to it can’t hear the difference between what they said and what I said. Ma famille is far from an exception. Like my non-Francophone friends, they are quick to retort that it doesn’t matter or, as Larissa would say, “We speak English here.”

Though at home she makes fun of me, if anyone else mocks my linguistic focuses my little sister will always defend me. And though my family shows little interest in learning French, I always think of it as a victory when they enjoy something from my adopted culture that I introduced them to. It also doesn’t hurt that my parents, who usually don’t brag about anything, love to tell their friends that their oldest daughter is fluent in French.

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